The Encyclopedia of Henna
Henna and the Insurrection
in the Hadramaut
Catherine Cartwright-Jones c 2004
Kent State University

The insurrection in the Hadramaut

When the Prophet Mohammed died in 632 CE, many Arab tribes refused to pay taxes to the Prophet’s successor, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph.  In some regions, there was open rebellion against the recently established, fragile, Islamic state.  In the Kinda and Hadramaut regions of Yemen, a group of six women celebrated the Prophet’s death with feasting and joy. They hennaed their hands, sang victory songs, danced, and played their tambourines.  Twenty two other women came out to join the political rebellion.  They also hennaed in celebration of the victory. 

Two of these rebellious women were grandmothers, one was a mother, and several were young girls, three of noble class, and four of a royal tribe.  The leaders of Yemen came from this royal tribe. Their rebellion against the Islamic state was significant, as women in Yemen were politically  powerful, and only their sons would rule the region.  Women in Yemen had been political and military rulers and strategists since the time of the Queen of Sheba and before. If these women's revolt against the Caliph gained support, the Islamic domain over the valuable area of the Yemen could collapse.

The ruler of Kinda in Yemen wrote a complaint to the Caliph about the women's victory celebration, as it threatened to undermine his authority and destabilize the region.  The Caliph received these complaints of insurrection, and ordered the women’s hennaed hands to be cut off as retaliation for their rebellion.  He also ordered that anyone who defended these rebels, or interfered with soldiers coming to enact the Caliph's judgment, be beheaded. The fact that the women had hennaed their hands was crucial evidence of their guilt, because the henna stains would remain on the women’s hands for some time as evidence. Their palm stains would last for a month, and their fingernails would betray their participation in the insurrection for up to six months.   Those who participated in the act of rebellion would be easily identified by their henna stains.  Women who had mourned for the death of The Prophet would not have used henna, as henna is eschewed during the period of mourning. 

The Caliph declared that it was blasphemous for women to henna in joy for the death of the Prophet of God. This edict is important in several respects.  It implied that there was a known tradition of hennaing for victory over an enemy, it implied that henna was associated with victory and joy rather than mourning,  and designated this specific act as a blasphemy because it placed the death of the Prophet as an occasion for joy rather than mourning.  The women's action was therefore interpreted as defying God’s will, delegated by the Prophet Mohamed, enforced through the Caliphate’s military rule.  This was a crucial political interpretation of divine word, through the Prophet, enacted by the Caliph. Therefore, though this linkage, their action was determined to be blasphemy against the will of God, and not a political rebellion. To support that determination, and to discredit these women, the Caliph referred to these women as harlots and whores. However, the grandmothers and girls were not of an age to be sex workers, and 7 were of noble birth.  The violence and swiftness of this punishment implies that the women’s social status and implicit family connections made them a potential political threat to the Muslim military authority in Yemen. Their sexual activities were probably of little concern, but when the Caliph termed them whores, this negated their status as noble born women, and politically influential.  Their hands committed a blasphemous act, and their henna bore witness to their refusal to submit to God's will.  Their hands were to be removed.

The murder of honorable, noble women would have been an unforgivable crime, and kinsmen would have rushed for vengeance, destabilizing the political structure in the region. With only their hands were cut off,   God's mercy potentially allowed them to survive the mutilation.  The punishment was delineated as a punishment for the hands which celebrated a blasphemy, carefully sidestepping their nobility and deterring further rebellion.  With the women’s honor impugned,  mutilations went uncontested, and the potential military insurrection was crushed.


Beeston, A.F. L
The So-Called Harlots of Hadramaut
Oriens V, 1952

Ibn Habib Al-Bagdhadi, M.
Kitab al-Muhabbar
Hyderabad, 1942

Mernisi, F.
Beyond the Veil, Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society
Indiana University Press. 1975

Field, Henry 
Body-Marking in Southwestern Asia
Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University
Vol. XLV, No 1
Peabody Museum, Cambridge Massachusetts, USA

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